KYIV, Ukraine >> Russian President Vladimir Putin today signed treaties to illegally annex more occupied Ukrainian territory in a sharp escalation of his seven-month invasion. The Ukrainian president immediately responded with a surprise request to join the NATO military alliance.
Putin’s land grab and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s signing of what he called an ‘fast track’ NATO membership application pushed the two leaders even faster onto a feared collision course. a full-scale conflict between Russia and the West.
Putin vowed to protect newly annexed parts of Ukraine by “all available means”, a nuclear-backed threat at a Kremlin signing ceremony where he also furiously lashed out at the West, accusing the United States and its allies of seeking the destruction of Russia.
Zelenskyy then held his own signing ceremony in Kyiv, releasing a video of him putting a pen to papers he said were an official application for NATO membership. He called this decision “our decisive step”.
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the world’s largest military alliance was one of his red lines and part of the justifications he cited for his invasion – the biggest war on earth. in Europe since World War II.
In his speech, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks, but immediately insisted he would not discuss returning occupied areas. Zelenskyy said there would be no negotiations with Putin.
“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but… with another president of Russia,” he said.
At his signing ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall, Putin accused the West of stoking hostilities in what he called a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowd of slaves”. His hardening stance in the conflict that has killed and injured tens of thousands has further heightened tensions, already to levels not seen since the Cold War.
The United States announced sanctions for more than 1,000 people and businesses linked to the Russian invasion, including its Central Bank governor.
On Putin’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, President Joe Biden said, “Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.
The European Union has rejected and condemned the “illegal annexation”. Its 27 member states have declared that they will never recognize the illegal referendums organized by Russia “as a pretext for this new violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Zelenskyy has vowed to keep fighting, defying Putin’s warnings that Ukraine should not try to take back what it has lost.
“The whole territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy,” the Ukrainian leader said. “Russia already knows this. It smells of our power.
The immediate ramifications of NATO’s “fast track” implementation were not immediately clear, since it requires the unanimous support of all members. The supply of Western weapons to Ukraine, however, has brought it closer to the orbit of the alliance.
“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards,” Zelenskyy said. “We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. It’s the covenant.”
Putin’s ceremony in the Kremlin came three days after the completion in the occupied regions of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia, which were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a land grab to uncovered face held at gunpoint and based on lies.
In his fiery speech at the ceremony, he insisted that Ukraine must treat Kremlin-run votes “with respect”.
After the signing ceremony of the accession treaties with Russia, the Moscow-based leaders of the occupied regions gathered around Putin and they all shook hands, joining in chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.
Putin, however, showed anger in accusing the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West was acting “like a parasite” and using its financial and technological might “to rob the whole world”.
He described Russia as being on a historic mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western dominance which he says is crumbling.
“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for historically great Russia, for future generations,” he said.
The breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine have been supported by Moscow since their declaration of independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The southern region of Kherson and part of the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia shortly after Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24.
Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to approve treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.
Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression – threats that Moscow can sustain with the largest arsenal of nuclear warheads in the world.
The illegal annexation was an attempt by Putin to avoid further battlefield defeats that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s gains, at least on paper, Putin apparently hopes to scare off Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalated conflict unless they back down – this which they show no sign of doing.
Russia controls most of the Lugansk and Kherson regions, around 60% of the Donetsk region and a large part of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
But the Kremlin is set to suffer another crushing defeat on the battlefield, with reports of the impending Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern town of Lyman. Taking it back could pave the way for Ukraine to penetrate deep into Luhansk, one of the regions that Russia is absorbing.
“It looks quite pathetic. The Ukrainians are doing something, taking action in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building a kind of virtual reality, unable to respond in the real world,” the former editor said. Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
“People understand that politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What is important is who advances and who retreats. In this sense, the Kremlin can offer nothing comforting to the Russians.
Russia has pounded Ukrainian towns with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reportedly killing 25 and injuring 50, according to the attorney general’s office. The combined salvos represented Moscow’s heaviest barrage in weeks.
The strike left deep craters and sent shrapnel through the aid convoy, killing their passengers. The neighboring buildings were demolished. Garbage bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, covered the bodies.
Analysts have warned that Putin is likely to draw more on his dwindling stockpiles of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war and break Western support.
A Ukrainian counter-offensive deprived Moscow of control of the battlefield. Its hold on the Luhansk region looks increasingly fragile as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a strong foothold in the neighboring region of Donetsk.
In the capital of the Zaporizhzhia region, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia reused as ground-attack weapons rained down on people waiting in cars to drive through Russian-occupied territory so they could bring back their family members across the front lines, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidency.
Russian officials based in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but offered no evidence.
Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said at least one person was killed and five injured.
The Ukrainian Air Force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa were being targeted by Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia is increasingly deploying, apparently to avoid losing more pilots who do not have control of the Ukrainian skies.
Ukraine pledged to retake all occupied territory and Russia pledged to defend its gains, threatening to use nuclear weapons and mobilizing 300,000 additional troops despite protests.
This was underscored by the fighting for Lyman, a key node in Russian military operations in the Donbass and a sought-after prize in the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russia-backed Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said the city was “half surrounded” by Ukrainian forces. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as calling the setback “worrying news”.
“Ukrainian armed formations,” he said, “are trying to spoil our celebration.”